Inaugural Online Networking Event a Virtual Success

Gaz Johnson's picture
By: 
Gaz J Johnson

A pilot event drew delegates from across the Midland academic libraries to discuss their personal experiences of keeping services, and themselves, up and running during the pandemic lockdown period.

Today saw the first online event organised and hosted by the Mercian Collaboration, since the organisation’s launch five years ago. The event took the form of a professional networking discussion group, structurally similar to the physically attended events organised by our special interest groups, albeit one which conducted entirely through a video conferencing platform. Delegates, who for the most part been invited to participate in the pilot event, took the opportunity to talk through the personal,  professional and service challenges they and colleagues had faced as a result of the Covid-19 lockdown in the UK.

Tonally the meeting adopted an informal format, with incoming MSDG Chair Sarah Pittaway (Worcester) and Development Officer Gareth J Johnson acting as event co-hosts. After introductions were made, the delegate’s discussions turned to individual experiences of working for academic libraries in a time of lockdown. Nine out of the twenty-three member institutions were represented, with a further delegate unavoidably delayed by internet problems. Even within this small subsection of the membership, it became rapidly clear how library staff across the region had a considerable diversity of lockdown experiences to share.

Communications and interactions with colleagues was a key early topic discussed, with some delegates reporting an enhanced perception of community against shared adversity. However, for others there was a growing sense of disconnection, especially with some sections of the library being more ‘engaged’ in projects providing online patron support or working to reconfigure physical services for reopening. A range of routes to keep library readers engaged or able to access library staff was also covered, with approaches including chat interfaces, virtual discussion groups alongside more ‘fun’ games, quizzes and interactive activities.

Working arrangements during this period of considerable challenge and change were also shared, and it was clear how these has been addressed across the region has varied considerably. Particular interest was demonstrated in considerations over the experience, demographics and proportion of library staff currently furloughed within individual services. Alongside this, delegates explored efforts towards keeping the non-furloughed staff gainfully engaged and informed. One institution reported how furloughed staff were kept onboard and onside as team members through involvement in informal, social engagements using online tools. These had helped staff members avoid developing feelings of distance from their other colleagues, and maintained team morale and cohesion.

As the debate continued, delegates turned to consider the maintenance of their personal physical and mental well-being. For some, the lockdown period has been momentary pause from the everyday and provided an opportunity to collect their thoughts and refocus attention on neglected projects or new developments. Other delegates though expressed their personal strong desires for returning to their library buildings, virus safeguards and working environment permitting, as physical interaction was much missed. Many delegates too reported underling feelings of anxiety, stress and discomfort – typified by one as ‘experiencing the corona blues’. These were clearly challenges each library staffer were continuing to meet on a personal and daily basis, with varying degrees of success. Helpfully, opportunities like today’s networking event were stressed as offering emotional and intellectual boosts which helped towards alleviating such difficulties.

Interestingly though, many delegates stressed that while the lockdown period has brought new challenges, there have been some unanticipated benefits too. For some teams who would normally work on geographically separate sites or rarely interacted during the normal delivery of services, were reported to have begun interacting regularly online. Many delegates reported the importance of social interaction alongside the work-day demands was essential for evolving and increasing this ‘team spirit’. Be it through games, quizzes, shared pictures or ‘meeting’ for coffee or drinks; these social considerations were showing genuine dividends. Some services had embraced such social support activities from the start of lockdown, while others were finding an increased need for such social activities had emerged now people had adjusted to the ‘new normal’ remote working environment.

The meeting then turned to discussions around the challenges faced by reopening academic libraries, and in particular the timescales, physical and cultural accommodations which were required. With some services more advanced in their timescales reopening than others, delegates noted how the challenges faced were not simply those concerned with services and patrons, but also safeguarding staff health and wellbeing. Delegates also discussed the steps they had been taking towards restoring physical services, such as book return and issue, even where the physical reopening of library buildings remained for the most part closed for the foreseeable future[1].

The meeting closed with a positive affirmation from all present that it had been a valuable exercise from which they had benefitted on many levels. Naturally, as with any online event where everyone is joining from home, there were a few technical teething problems. Thankfully, these were mostly overcome so that delegates could participate, but served as a reminder that the online experience won’t always be 100% perfect for everyone. Nevertheless, delegates were keen that the Collaboration could repeat the experience with further events in the not too distant future.

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If you’ve any thoughts about online networking events you’d like to see the Collaboration host, talk to your Mercian Staff Development Representative or contact the Mercian Collaboration Executive Manager.

[1] Those looking towards reopening their libraries, may wish to join the national discussion list on this topic LIBRARIES-REOPEN@JISCMAIL.AC.UK (not affiliated with the Mercian Collaboration).

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[Update: You can now read about the feedback from the event]